The Ladies’ Man
Bill Laimbeer knows he’s the villain. He dressed the part in a black suit to Game 1 of the 2008 WNBA Finals. Introduced by the AT&T Center public address announcer, he prodded the San Antonio crowd with three waves around the arena. “The fans booed him as they booed no one else,” wrote Express-News columnist Buck Harvey.
Laimbeer barked at his players and lit into the refs, darting along the sideline in defiance of signs the Silver Stars had placed on seats across from the Detroit Shock bench that read, “Hey Bill, Calm Down.” When official Roy Gulbeyan told him the same thing with a technical foul in the fourth quarter, the AT&T Center erupted for the first time all night. Then another irrepressible strand of Laimbeer DNA emerged: Detroit won, 77-69. Five days later the Shock completed their three-game sweep of the Silver Stars to capture another WNBA championship, their third on Laimbeer’s watch.
Pistons fans are familiar with the doormat-to-dynasty arc of Laimbeer’s tenure as head coach and general manager of the Shock, and in broad strokes the method by which he accomplished it. Laimbeer has indeed modeled the Shock after the Pistons championship teams he started for in 1989 and 1990, though direct comparisons sometimes go too far. “To peg it in a Pistons hole would not be the way to go,” he said.
To say Laimbeer adopted Jack McCloskey’s blueprint and dusted off Chuck Daly’s clipboard, recreating Detroit’s beloved Bad Boys with women warriors grossly oversimplifies the matter. The WNBA wasn’t ready for anything like it when he arrived in 2002. So he made it ready, winning at such a spectacular rate that other GMs have gushed over his bold personnel moves and followed his lead on key league reforms. They’d be foolish not to.
“It’d be like a college basketball coach who hasn’t read every book by Mike Krzyzewski,” said ESPN analyst Doris Burke, who has covered the WNBA since its 1997 inception.
Perhaps he only meant to pattern the Shock after the successful franchise he knew as a player but after seven years Laimbeer has gone well beyond that now. The NBA’s quintessential Bad Boy has transformed the culture of women’s basketball in the United States. And for a guy notorious for his demonstrative, overbearing personality, he did it almost entirely without raising his voice.
“When people see him on the sideline they assume he’s a ranting and raving guy and he is not,” said Shock guard Katie Smith. “Unless you’ve been a part of who we are, you don’t have a clue what he’s really about.”
The Branding of Bill
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
One heck of a publicity stunt, as Laimbeer’s hire was scornfully viewed when he took over the winless Shock (0-10) in 2002. His bench expertise limited to his daughter Keri’s team, Laimbeer pushed Detroit to an 8-7 finish.
“I wasn’t a big fan of someone being hired out of an AAU program,” said Cheryl Reeve, a WNBA assistant coach since 2001 who has been on Laimbeer’s staff the past three seasons. “But what we missed the boat on is you couldn’t know who he was as a person in terms of his intensity and his intellect for the game of basketball that he carried over from his days playing in the ‘80s. He brought that to the Detroit Shock, and it eventually changed the league.”
Laimbeer had no qualms about bringing the Bad Boys ideology to the WNBA. In the Shock he has instilled the same core values – defense, desire and relentless rebounding – that embodied his persistent Pistons. “We’re very physical and some people would use the word ‘arrogant,’” he said. “I would say confident.”
Laimbeer retired as the Pistons’ all-time leading rebounder in 1993, eleven games into his 14th season. But the glorious love affair between Detroit and its Bad Boys has never ended, and the WNBA has capitalized on Laimbeer and assistant coach Rick Mahorn’s Bad Boys notoriety. Older fans still have strong feelings about the Detroit duo, which now are shared by another generation.
“I think what Bill Laimbeer brings is a commitment to excellence,” said WNBA President Donna Orender during the finals. “They are a team people love to love or love to hate, and when you have that kind of emotion attached to a franchise that’s that successful, it’s the way you build fans.”
And a reputation, which for Laimbeer has never been favorable. He twice took issue with disciplinary action from the league regarding oncourt incidents in 2008, feeling they reinforced a “Bad Girls” stereotype – that the Shock’s style of play made them culpable for confrontations. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“To wear the black hat so to speak – the mantle of the team that nobody likes – it has its drawbacks at times,” Laimbeer confessed. “But at the same time it has its positives because it gives a team a sense of identity, something to rally around and hold up high. That really helps.”
A Thinking Man’s GM
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
“I enjoy working with him,” said Dan Hughes, head coach and general manager of the Silver Stars, who ranks fourth on the all-time wins list, four ahead of Laimbeer. “He and I will have a five- to seven-minute conversation that will cover more ground than an hour when I talk to other GMs.”
Hughes called Laimbeer – who graduated from Notre Dame with an economics degree – a “thinking man’s GM” for his thorough understanding of the salary cap. Coupled with his constant need to improve, even in the middle of the season, Laimbeer is the gold standard for WNBA executives.
Three members of Detroit’s 2008 championship team were acquired midseason, including sixtime All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin. In 2005 Laimbeer picked up forward Plenette Pierson and Smith in separate deals. Pierson became the 2007 Sixth Woman of the Year and Smith is the Shock’s second-leading scorer. From the combination of five players and draft picks Laimbeer dealt away, none are still in the league.
“As a GM the way he transacts I think has changed the league,” said Reeve, who also serves as the Shock’s director of player personnel. “He has the guts to do things and people say, ‘Oh, how do you keep trading with Bill?’ Bill’s the one making the phone calls. Nobody else is calling.”
When he does, you best have an answer. “He doesn’t mess around,” Hughes said. “It’s yes or no. I think that’s one of his strengths through the years.”
Laimbeer’s directness makes him much more of player’s coach than his public persona suggests – more Kzryzewski than Bobby Knight, more Daly than Larry Brown. “I just respect the fact he’s a straight shooter,” Smith said.
“A lot of people think you can’t talk to Bill and honestly you can talk to him,” said rookie Alexis Hornbuckle. “You’ve just got to come at him straightforward, know what you’re going to say and he’ll listen. He might not change what he thinks but at least he knows where you stand.”
Reeve grew so frustrated by Laimbeer’s sideline antics when she worked for other teams she stopped shaking his hand after games. Having witnessed his player rapport, she has tried to change the minds of her more skeptical peers. “The players will tell you, Bill’s a good guy. He has the players’ interests at heart at all times – all times,” she said. “The players know that, that’s why players want to play here.”
“It’s not just about Detroit”
One could make a strong case that Laimbeer ushered in the WNBA’s modern era when the Shock dethroned the two-time champion Los Angeles Sparks in the best-of-three 2003 Finals. The landmark series completed a historic first worst-to-first turnaround, which means less to Laimbeer than how his players pulled it off.
“I take a little bit of pride in the fact I think our ’03 team changed the way the WNBA was played,” said Laimbeer, the 2003 WNBA Coach of the Year. “It became more of a physical, uptempo, highly competitive basketball game. And everybody had to match our personnel.”
Physical, up-tempo, highly competitive: attributes that all helped the NBA’s soaring popularity in the 1980s. “He’ll tell you that the WNBA today is very much what the NBA was in the ‘80s when he and Rick played,” Reeve said.
To that end Laimbeer and Chancellor sought to boost the pace of WNBA games the same way the NBA did in its early years, the 24-second shot clock. The league adopted the shot clock in 2006, which both Laimbeer and Reeve cite as one of his most lasting contributions. “It sped the game up, it increased the scoring and I’m very glad we got that through,” he said.
Laimbeer also helped craft the league’s collective bargaining agreement. “He cares about the league,” Smith said. “He wants it to succeed. It’s not just about Detroit. It’s about the whole thing.” On both basketball and business matters, Laimbeer has served the WNBA’s longterm interests, which raises the question how long he’s planning to be a part of it.
“I enjoy doing what I’m doing”
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
“What I do wonder about is why Bill hasn’t gotten a chance to coach an NBA team,” Burke said. “If that perception hurts his chances, I’m not sure. It certainly makes me think about that.”
Laimbeer’s NBA success translated to the women’s game, though some might be skeptical of it working in reverse. Even when former teammate Joe Dumars decided the Pistons needed a head coach who could return the team to its rugged defensive roots, he chose former Piston Michael Curry, a Pistons assistant coach with prior experience in the NBA league office.
“It will take a daring NBA owner or general manager to hire someone from the women’s game,” Laimbeer was quoted in Harvey’s column on his future.
Laimbeer, 51, has not signed a contract to return to the Shock in 2009. He admits he almost left the Shock after losing the ’07 finals before another title quest pulled him back. “Winning championships,” he said, “that’s the fun part.” Laimbeer will savor another triumph before deciding to return, which he’s done at the end of the past several seasons.
“I feel like I’m in the way a little bit of my two assistants (Reeve and Mahorn). It’s becoming their time, and it bothers me,” he said after the title-clinching Game 3, his white shirt drenched with champagne and sweat. “But at the same time, I enjoy doing what I’m doing.”
Laimbeer’s Pistons resume – one NBA rebounding crown, two NBA titles, four All-Star selections – deserves consideration for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. His notoriety makes it unlikely enough voters would inspect his credentials objectively. Springfield, Mass., probably will never call for the Pistons center.
But maybe the phone will ring one day for Bill Laimbeer, a pioneer for U.S. women’s basketball, who in a prior life happened to be a pretty good ballplayer, too.